NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP - Newtown Ambulance Squad leaders appeared at the April 24 township supervisors’ meeting to discuss a recent highly-publicized incident involving an allegedly intoxicated EMT who had a minor accident while transporting a patient from St. Mary Medical Center.
“Unbeknownst to us this employee was an alcoholic who fell off the wagon,” ambulance squad president Joe Swerk told the supervisors. “He made a stupid decision that cost him his career.”
Swerk, who said that he wanted to “set the record straight,” appeared before the board along with Jeff Stocklos, the squad’s chief of operations.
Swerk also denied that there was a “cover up” of the incident, noting that Nicholas White, 30, of Northeast Philadelphia was fired immediately following the April 14 accident.
Swerk said that when the news reports “hit the streets,” rumors surfaced that there was a cover up.
“I thought it was the proper thing to do to come here and set the record straight,” he stated.
According to Swerk, White and his partner were called in from home that day to transport a non-emergency patient from St. Mary to Montgomery County for a mental health evaluation.
At about 4:30 p.m. White’s partner, who was in the rear of the ambulance with the patient, noticed that White was driving erratically. The partner then notified the dispatcher to have another ambulance come to the scene to transport the patient.
It was when White was pulling over to stop that he hit the curb and flattened one of the tires. There were no injuries.
When police arrived, White allegedly failed a field sobriety test and reportedly admitted to the officer that he was an alcoholic.
White was charged with driving while intoxicated, reckless endangerment and careless driving.
Swerk said that White was a “model employee” who had worked for the squad for two years without any previous incidents.
“A mistake happened, fortunately no one was hurt,” Swerk said. “He’ll lose his state [EMT] license and his drivers’ license as well.
“Neither his partner nor anyone at St. Mary noticed anything was wrong,” Swerk explained, noting that nothing like this has ever happened in the squad’s 63-year history.
Swerk told the supervisors that according to the ambulance squad’s handbook, an employee cannot drink alcohol eight hours before a shift.
While praising the ambulance squad’s appearance to address the incident, the supervisors peppered Swerk with questions concerning how an allegedly intoxicated driver could get behind the wheel of an ambulance in the first place.
“Fortunately the patient was not an emergency,” said Supervisor Vice Chairman Matt Benchener. “A delay of this type could have meant a loss of life.”
Benchener said that he would like to see a better control system put in place before squad workers drive a vehicle to ensure that they are not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“Perhaps workers can ask each other questions,” he maintained. “This is an opportunity for us to think about better control systems.
“Unless there is a process of controls in place there would be a sustainable fix,” Benchener added.
“I make no apologies,” Swerk responded. “We sit down with every employee and stress that you have to make sure your partner is okay.”
In addition, Benchener noted that the township should review its own procedures covering vehicle operations to ensure that they are “up to snuff.”
“Our own may not be up to snuff,” he contended.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Rob Ciervo said that there was no need to “reinvent the wheel,” noting that a partner check is adequate at the beginning of each shift.
“I commend you for stepping up to the plate,” added Supervisor Ryan Gallagher. “Yours is a top-notch organization.”
Several residents spoke in support of the non-profit ambulance squad, including Jim Carey of Newtown Gate, a retired SEPTA bus driver.
According to Carey, even with SEPTA guidelines in place intoxicated and impaired drivers still drove buses.
“You can’t control these people, believe me. I’ve seen it for 38 years,” Carey asserted.
“This is a learning experience,” Benchener declared. “We should never let these moments pass without learning from them.”
Newtown Township helps fund the ambulance squad and $112,500 was earmarked for the organization in the 2013 budget which took effect Jan. 1.